Exclusive: ‘Waste of billions’ if local rail is not improved

MINISTERS have been warned they are at risk of wasting billions of pounds on high speed rail unless they also invest in significant improvements to Yorkshire’s local network.

Council leaders in the region have told the Government its focus on trading off cuts in local services in some areas to fund improvements elsewhere in Yorkshire is “inconsistent” with Ministers’ calls on the region to make itself “HS2 ready”.

They are arguing that while the investment in a new high speed rail link between London and Yorkshire is welcome, the impact on the region will be limited if connecting journeys to and from the proposed HS2 stations in South Yorkshire and Leeds are on unreliable, overcrowded and outdated trains.

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The links between HS2 and the wider transport network are expected to be the focus of a report by HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins on maximising the benefits of high speed rail due to be publised on Monday.

With a string of key decisions which will impact on Yorkshire’s railways due to be taken in the coming weeks and months, today The Yorkshire Post launches the latest in its Big Debate series to give readers a chance to have their voices heard via the newspaper, our websites and social media.

Earlier this year the Government launched a consultation on the future of the transpennine and northern rail franchises which include the bulk of rail services in Yorkshire.

In its response, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) says the “apparent focus in the Northern Rail franchise consultation on trade-offs and possible reductions in service levels seems inconsistent with the Government’s longer term ambitions”.

It continues: “WYCA support for HS2 is conditional on the two new franchises being sufficiently ambitious in helping ensure our City Region and the wider north can maximise and spread the benefits of HS2.”

Authority chairman Peter Box said: “These two franchises and improvements they bring will have a key role in ensuring West Yorkshire and the Leeds City Region are ‘HS2-ready’.

“We have made clear in our response that a repetition of previous no-growth or low-growth franchises is not acceptable. They need to be ambitious and support our wider objectives of transforming the region’s economic potential into an economic powerhouse.

“And there needs to be more local control over rail services because by working with our colleagues across the north of England who, like us, understand the local issues, we can deliver better results than civil servants in Whitehall can hope to achieve.”

In its response, the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority says any fare rises should be accompanied by “tangible benefits” for passengers.

It describes the idea of cutting some services to help pay for better trains as “not an acceptable trade-off”.

“We wish to see a more ambitious focus on increasing patronage at low use stations..... and improved connectivity,” it says.

In addition to their formal responses, it is understood regional leaders have been engaged in discussions with Government officials pressing the case for rolling stock and station improvements, linking fare rises to investment and progress on ‘smart ticketing’.

Senior political figures have also spoken positively in recent months about the need to invest in better transport links as part of efforts to grow the North’s economy.

Sheffield City Council chief executive John Mothersole welcomed the new political focus on improving connections between northern cities.

“For a whole range of circumstances colliding together now it does feel to me like there’s a huge momentum and the time is now.

“But the time won’t stay now forever and we have to close the deal. That’s where we have all got to put our efforts now.”

Writing in The Yorkshire Post today, Stephen Joseph, the chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, says the new rail franchises have become a “test of whether the Government is serious about its ambitions to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The Government has ambitious plans for creating a northern powerhouse, underpinned by £1.5 billion of rail improvements. This will spur long term economic growth, allowing for faster, more reliable journeys across the region.

“Crucially this includes the £1.1 billion investment in the Northern Hub and Transpennine electrification schemes. The Chancellor has also unveiled his vision for a high speed network for the region’s biggest cities.

“We are very aware of passengers’ concerns over rail fares, and that is why the Chancellor announced a second year’s freeze in real terms on regulated fares, as well as abolishing train operating companies’ ability to flex prices on regulated fares.”